Environment & Science

Mars Curiosity rover getting back to work after glitch

NASA's Curiosity took a picture of itself on Mars.
NASA's Curiosity took a picture of itself on Mars.

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The Mars rover Curiosity has been idle since it short-circuited late last month after drilling into a Martian rock looking for signs of life.

Monday, engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said they’ve likely narrowed down the problem to a malfunctioning drill bit.

Specifically, they believe the short circuit was caused by a mechanism that allows the drill to bob up and down while it is spinning.

Curiosity deputy project manager Jennifer Trosper noted that after a weekend full of tests, the team learned the short circuit doesn’t kick in every time the drill is used.

She said that means the rover should be able to carry out most of its experiments with minimal problems.

"We believe we are going to get to where we can potentially utilize it even with the short, but even if we couldn’t there are other options on the table," Trosper said.

One option she says, is simply drilling without the bobbing mechanism, though that may make it tougher to dig into particularly hard rocks.

Still, with the problem identified and accounted for, the 2.5 billion dollar machine should be able to resume its usual operations in a matter of days.

The problem with the drill began on February 27th when Curiosity's arm froze after experiencing what was called a "transient short circuit."

The rover was in the middle of moving some Martian rock powder from its drill to one of its onboard laboratory instruments for further study.

The glitch triggered a protective protocol that suspended that operation, though it continued using other instruments like the on board weather station.

Trosper said this glitch was similar to something identified during pre-launch tests.

While she suspected this particular problem may arise at some point during Curiosity's lifetime, she didn't think it would be this soon.

"We thought we had a lot more cycles, orders of magnitude more cycles before we might potentially see something like this," she said.

However, she noted, if this drill malfunction is related to the problem identified during the early tests, it means NASA already has some data on how to deal with the issue.

Overall, she said the mood at JPL is cautiously optimistic as teams of engineers try to learn as much as they can about this short circuit.

"This is what we are paid to do right?" Trosper said. "Try to get these things as much life out of them as we can."

Curiosity has been hard at work studying the Red Planet since August of 2012. Last year it successfully completed it's primary mission of identifying compounds necessary for life to form.

Now, the rover is on an extended mission to study a Martian mountain known as Mount Sharp in hopes of learning more about the planet's ancient past.